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The PCC, sailors stories and the Commons

Politicians often complain that the press focuses on the personality of a minister rather than what he (or she) is doing in office. Yesterday, as defence secretary Des Browne faced MPs over the sale of the sailors’ stories the boot was on the other foot.

The Press Complaints Commission chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, became the issue when Gerald Kaufman asked about the commission’s offer of assistance. Here is the uncorrected Hansard report of the exchange.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab):

Since the shadow Secretary of State for Defence mentioned the offer from the Press Complaints Commission to advise the 15 young service people who were risking their lives for their country but were totally inexperienced in dealing with the press, canmy right hon. Friend say whether the PCC cited the example of a public servant—the chairman of the PCC—who as ambassador to Washington broke every rule in the book in selling his story to the press? There was no PCC investigation of that.

Des Browne:

Somewhat surprisingly, in the short e-mail received from the PCC no mention was made of the issues that my right hon. Friend raises. However, the offer should be seen in its proper context and in its terms. I am grateful to the PCC, which helpfully reminded the MOD on Thursday 5 April that it was on hand to help, should the need arise. That was the actual offer. As a matter of fact, early on, the MOD had put in place comprehensive plans to ensure that each family was properly protected from media intrusion, and that protection, which is part of our duty of care, continues. Our media minders report that, despite the media pressure on the families, to date none of the 15 service personnel or their families has complained about media harassment. I remind Members that the rules of the PCC require the commission to satisfy itself that any complaint has first been dealt with by the editor of the newspaper involved before the PCC can take and exercise its jurisdiction.

The government was very unhappy with Sir Christopher, UK ambassador in Washington from 1997 to 2003, when his book, DC Confidential, was published late in 2005 and serialised in the Daily mail and the Guardian. There was criticism of a public servant rushing to sell a story that was critical of ministers.

Sir Gerald points out that there was no PCC investigation. The answer to that is in Browne’s response: there was no formal complaint.

However, to dismiss the offer of assistance over the sailors’ stories in such an off-hand way does not hold a lot of water. Last month Sir Christopher gave evidence to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee hearing on self-regulation of the press. He made it clear that the PCC was now acting proactively, without formal complaints. He said:

We do this time and time again to anticipate events where indeed vulnerable people may feel themselves under threat. We have the ability through the so‑called desist order to stop harassment. You have had an extensive discussion about Kate Middleton and one of the things that we did immediately after her birthday scrum was to make sure that the desist notice went around all the newspapers and I think there was direct cause and effect there. Most of the time we do this for people with who lay no claim to celebrity at all, I think we had about 30 which we did last year.

It is inevitable that having taken the role of PCC chairman Sir Christopher’s own record should be examined, but it must be rather uncomfortable. Whether the PCC could have done anything really helpful in this latest cast is open to question but it is important that self-regulation is seen to be effective and robust.

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